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Michigan prosecutors balance new rights of juvenile lifers against promises made to victims

Dec 14, 2016

In his office in downtown Grand Rapids, Kent County prosecutor Bill Forsyth has stacks of boxes up against a long wall. They’re labeled and stuffed with transcripts, police reports, autopsy reports. 

“That’s about half of what I had when we started,” he said, motioning toward them. 

About a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said states had to review the cases of juvenile lifers who were sentenced before automatic life was declared unconstitutional. The court said automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. 

Michigan prosecutors have to figure out which of the 363 people sentenced to life without parole should get a chance at freedom.

Now Michigan prosecutors have to figure out which of the 363 people sentenced to life without parole should get a chance at freedom. That task was handed to them by the U.S. Supreme Court – which said automatic life without parole is unconstitutional for people younger than 18.

As they go through those cases, the prosecutors also have to try to balance the rights of so-called “juvenile lifers” against the promises made to the victims of their crimes. 

That brings us back to Forsyth’s stacks of boxes. He and other prosecutors across Michigan have to decide which of the lifers from their counties should get a shot at parole. 

(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)

Inside those boxes are the stories of those inmates. But those boxes also hold the stories of victims and their family members who now have to revisit painful events they thought were behind them.

“So there’s a lot of anger, a lot of mistrust in the system,” he said. “They just don’t understand and – and I don’t blame them.” 

That shock, of having a case opened up again is the reality of hundreds of people. 

People like Jody Robinson.

Murder victim family members Jody Robinson and Bobbi Jamriska at the Supreme Court in March of 2012. They were there representing the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers during the oral arguments in the Miller and Jackson cases.
Credit http://www.teenkillers.org/

I met Jody Robinson at a diner. She showed me old, faded pictures that she copied onto her phone.  

“That is my dear brother, way back when, cause it’s been so long. But that is Jim, that’s who we’re talking about,” she said. 

Her older brother was killed in 1990. He was stabbed to death on Mother’s Day … on his way to deliver his mom a card. The defendants were then 16-year old Barbara Hernandez and her older boyfriend. 

Hernandez’s sentence is among the many cases in Michigan up for reconsideration. 

“What people don’t understand if they have never been through it is, you truly do go back to that day,” she said. 

This kind of pain is not lost on prosecutors, whose job, in part, is to seek justice for victims and their families.

Jessica Cooper is the prosecutor in Oakland County. The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office handled the Hernandez case back in 1991, before Cooper took office.

Cooper is asking the courts to uphold the life sentences for 44 juvenile lifers, including Barbara Hernandez. But she still had to tell victims that their cases would be back in court. 

“While they may have moved on or, or at least have had some type of closure, that I was there to rip off that scab one more time and that was impossibly awful,” she said.  

"... I was there to rip off that scab one more time and that was impossibly awful."

I meet Mara McCalmon at her two-story house in the Port Huron neighborhood that overlooks the bridge to Canada.

McCalmon’s small, blind pug curled up in her lap. A German Shepard the size of a small pony laid nearby. 

In 2010, McCalmon and her husband were attacked in their home. Her husband was killed.  The attack was orchestrated by their adopted daughter, Tia, who was a month shy of her 18th birthday at the time.

“You know after you go through a trial and you go through a sentencing, that’s just supposed to be it,” she said. “And that has not been the case for us.” 

The St. Clair County case has been appealed numerous times. It’s currently waiting on whether the Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether judges or juries should decide resentencing for juvenile lifers.

McCalmon says it feels like victims and their families have been disregarded in the debate over juvenile lifers. 

“In some respects it feels like when a horrible crime has been committed and years or time has passed, that we start – people, not we, because I don’t – people start turning defendants into victims and that’s really not easy to see or read or hear about,” she said. 

For victims like Mara McCalmon and Jody Robinson, that is the real cruel and unusual punishment.

This story has been corrected. Jody Robinson's brother was killed in 1990, not 1991.